Election 2016

Trump, Clinton Slug it Out Over the Narcissism of Small Differences

There was drama, hot takes, and nasty exchanges at the final presidential debate. There was everything except a real choice.


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If the third and final presidential debate proved anything, it's that Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump—and the parties they represent—are more alike than they are different.

Sure, the former Secretary of State and the billionaire developer are worlds apart when it comes to style, experience, and temperament. Flipping through the cable news channels, all you can hear is the stagey disbelief that Trump, as churlish a candidate as there has ever been, refused to say he would automatically abide by the results on Election Day. The Donald refused to cave to convention and instead insisted that he'd have to wait and see. Sure, why not? Whatever else you can say about Trump, his big-city bravado blew more than a dozen Republican contenders off the primary stage like the Big, Bad Wolf blowing down so many houses of straw. He is rude, crude, and brusque, and Clinton is not any of that. She's not particularly polished and certainly is no nore likable than Trump, but they do carry themselves differently.

Which is one of the greatest sleights of hand at work in American politics. The two parties are like, totally different, right? One's red and the other is blue, conservative and liberal, tight and loose with money, exclusive and inclusive, you name it. Except that they really aren't that different, and it shows. On more issues than not, Trump and Clinton were in near total agreement. Each eschewed free-trade deals and ran from screaming from the idea of open borders. In fact, when Trump laid into Clinton over "open-border" comments she made in a speech revealed by Wikileaks, she rushed to say that she had voted for the sorts of border walls the Republican has made central to his campaign. And she's right. The 700-mile border wall she voted for an a senator is just about 300 miles shorter than the one Trump is dying to erect. In fact, he was pleased as punch when he got to point out that President Barack Obama, who typically only figures as a villain in Trump's speechifying, has deported hundreds of thousands of people.

On foreign policy, it quickly became clear that neither candidate had anything meaningful to say about what comes next, in Syria or anywhere else. They were too focused on whether Trump did in fact support the Iraq War a dozen years ago (who cares, really?) and whether it was a sign of virtue that Clinton had apologized for voting in favor of it (to quote her in a different situation, what difference at this point does it make?). Beyond that, there was the empty bluster of Trump saying that Clinton and the Obama administration had demonstrably failed at resculpting the lone and level sands of the Middle East into anything approaching civilization. True enough, but what exactly was he, who had once pronounced that would "bomb the shit" out of ISIS, going to do? Neither candidate could pull themselves out of the most-banal conversation about whether we were winning or losing in Mosul or in Aleppo. Neither offered up even the faintest vision of what might guide them as president when it came to military interventions, economic engagements, or diplomatic efforts. Here we are, running down the clock on the 21st century and still huffing the fumes of Cold War nostrums about America being the indispensable nation, or about being great because we are good or good because we are great.

Toward the close of this debate, we got to hear at least a little bit about spending and debt, intertwined issues that in most ways undergird all other questions. A bankrupt government can't really do much of anything, or at least not for very long. Chris Wallace, the Fox News anchor who moderated this debate with welcome aplomb and force, noted that each candidate was punting on the questions of spending and debt. The Committee for a Responsible Budget (CFRB) has scored both candidates' spending and tax plans and neither is good on these issues. Nobody's talking much about debt and deficits anymore, mostly because owning the problem means you get less money to spread around. Sure, large and growing debt correlates with slower and lower economic growth (on this, right- and left-wing economists agree), but let's leave that to the grandkids to figure out. Over the next decade, CRFB says, debt owned by the public (a subset of the national debt, which also includes intra-governmental IOUs) would grow from around 77 percent to 86 percent under Hillary Clinton's plans and to 105 percent under Trump's. She would increase spending massively but also raise taxes significantly. Trump would spend less but slash tax receipts even more, causing greater deficits. Each candidate is guilty of the worst sort of magical thinking, that somehow their tax hikes or cuts would yield increased economic growth to cover whatever it is they want to do next. More importantly, as Wallace stressed, the major trust funds for Social Security and Medicare are drying up and neither candidate is offering up even mildly serious plans to address those problems. Trump has said that he's not going to cut anybody's benefits while Clinton is calling for expanded benefits.

Which means not only are these not serious candidates, they are not distinct candidates either.

Somewhere in Los Angeles, the Libertarian candidate for president Gary Johnson was twiddling his thumbs on Twitter, in the green room waiting to appear on Jimmy Kimmel Live! A few weeks ago, Johnson muffed a couple of foreign policy questions ("What is Aleppo?") and failed to reach 15 percent in the five polls the rankly partisan Commission on Presidential Debates said would determine attendance at tonight's event. Bless his heart, he might not be popular enough with Americans to be on the stage, but unlike either Clinton or Trump, he's openly and unapologetically for free trade and more-open immigration. He's called for a different foreign policy, one grounded in skepticism about armies building nations in far-flung lands. And he's brazen on the third-rail of American politics, saying that of course we need to change Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid, so that we can have a sustainable, targeted, and effective safety net that helps those of us who need help without bankrupting the entire nation.

But Gary Johnson, a two-term Republican governor who served successfully in heavily Democratic-leaning New Mexico, would have presented an actual alternative to the two folks on stage tonight. So of course he was nowhere to be seen. Because Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, the Democrat and the Republican, express the full range of diversity in a country that celebrates choice in everything but politics.